Return to Bethel


Genesis 35:1–15

I. The historical context involves one of the most sordid chapters in Scripture.

Chapter 34 is a perfect slice of life demonstrating how God’s providence operates in a fallen world. Jacob bought land near Shechem from the sons of Hamor, the prince of Shechem. He had built booths for his cattle, a residence for himself, and constructed an altar. He had stopped short of Bethel and seemed content to settle there. Hamor had a young son whose name was Shechem.

A. Dinah could not have been more than 7 years old when Jacob left Haran.

It seems that almost a decade has passed and Dinah was in her mid-teens (verse 4 refers to her as a “young girl”). On a visit to see other young girls with whom she was acquainted, Shechem, the son of the ruler of the land, saw her and, being inflamed with lust toward her, forced her to lie with him.

B. Unlike Amnon, David’s son, who hated Tamar after he had violated her (2 Samuel 13:11–16), Shechem loved Dinah, treated her tenderly, and wanted to marry her.

He convinced his Father, Hamor, to negotiate with Jacob for the hand of Dinah in marriage. During the negotiations, Jacob’s sons expressed their grief, anger, and even outrage at what Shechem had done. Hamor and Shechem, however, persisted in their negotiations, showing the determined sincerity of Shechem in seeking Dinah for a wife (“the soul of my son Shechem longs for your daughter”) and offering terms to allay the anger and obtain his desire (“Ask me ever so much bridal payment”). Dinah still was living in the home of Shechem.

C. The sons of Jacob, plotting a deceitful plan, asked that all of the males of the region ruled by Hamor be circumcised, for that was the mark by which all of their posterity would be identified.

Shechem consented, and due to the esteem in which he was held in the territory (19), they consented.

    1. The sons of Jacob were planning a slaughter and used two strategic points to bring it to success. First, they consented that it would be desirable that they would become one people with Hamor’s people. They had no intention of this, but the proposal disarmed Shechem with the prospect of increased wealth as well as a young bride. Second, the circumcision would create such a physical trauma that the men would not be in a condition to defend themselves.
    2. Shechem (called “the young man”) was exuberant at the prospect of having consent to keep Dinah as his bride, so he set forth all the advantages of such a union with Jacob’s people in order to convince the men to meet the condition (20–23). The text presents Shechem, apart from the rape of Dinah (!), as sincere, respectable, and genuinely in love with Jacob’s daughter.

D. On the third day after the circumcision of all the men, Simeon and Levi, two full brothers of Dinah, the second and third born to Leah, came quickly upon the city in its helpless and convalescing condition and put the men to the sword, including Hamor and Shechem.

They also took all the spoil of the field and from the houses and brought all the women and children to their own settlement.

E. Jacob was alarmed at this action for it would bring retaliation from other Canaanite cities and result in utter destruction.

Simeon and Levi defended their action believing that it was not too severe for the crime against Dinah. The Mosaic law which yet lay in the future would demonstrate that their action was massively disproportionate to the crime.

II. Again, in a critical historical crossroads, as in the case of his crisis with Laban (31:13), God intervened and told Jacob to move.

He was to return to Bethel where he first met God and first received the covenant, even as he fled from the danger of Esau’s intention of vengeance (27:43–45; 28:13).

A. There he was to establish a place of worship by making an altar.

The knowledge of God always comes with recognition of the need for an atoning sacrifice and the restoration of worship. The altar became an essential aspect of Hebrew worship consistently pointing to the reality of a substitutionary death for the redemption of sinners (Exodus 21:22–26 [temporary altars]; Exodus 25:10–22 [the permanent altar until fulfilled by Christ’s atoning work (Hebrews 10:11–14; 13:10–16), where redemption naturally leads to purity of worship].

B. He was to be recommitted to live in accord with divine revelation for there God had appeared to him.

The decreed and revealed purpose of God guided his movements. He did not invent his own way of coming to God; he, even as we, must respond to divine requirement.

C. He was to learn to live with confidence in God, without fear of men, for God’s word came to him even as he fled from Esau then Laban, and now the pagan towns of Canaan.

III. Jacob effected the move with a renewed sense of his place in the divine covenant.

A. Jacob concluded that worship of the one true God was not to be merely a private affair, but that he would not tolerate idolatry in his entire household.

He now has people from Canaan living with him as a result of the actions of Simeon and Levi. They, along with his household, are to get rid of their gods. They will find that disposing of such silly objects will have no negative repercussions. He took the position that Joshua took later, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:14, 15).

B. The manner in which they would purify themselves would probably involve washing with water, even as the priests were to do under Levitical law.

The descendants of Levi would know much of purification (Exodus 29:4; Leviticus 8:6). If they were to be a people who knew the true and living God, they would be a people intent on purity. The dust and corruption of their former life must be laid aside.

C. Even the garments that characterized the life of compromise and idolatry must be laid aside (Jude 23).

Jacob looked upon this return to Bethel as a mark of full consecration to the calling of God on his life; As the father of God’s covenant people, he must impress on them the separation demanded by those through whom redemption was to come to the world. Peter reminded the “pilgrims of the dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1) who were redeemed by the one true God, ‘Laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:1). Divine grace gives a new manner of life, a new authority for living, and a new vision of the ultimate end of our pilgrimage here, that is to grow by the power of God’s revelation “up to salvation.” Increasing purity of heart and action here fits us for the ultimate vocation of eternal life (“grow up to salvation” 1 Peter 2:2).

D. Worship of the one true God would be established, and all other worship would be no more.

There is no God but one and he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. “I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone” (35:3). He was telling the people that he would do as instructed.

E. Instead of the proposed merger of Jacob’s family into the ways of the people of Canaan, becoming “one people,” (34:16, 22), the people of the land would lose their former distinctive ways and become united with the covenant people of God.

They would be purified of all their manners of dress, worship and even culture and be fused into the foundation of the messianic nation at its beginning. They had spent “enough of their past lifetime doing the will of the Gentiles” (1 Peter 4:3) and would now worship, believe, and live as people in covenant with the God of heaven and earth. What Simeon and Levi intended for evil in their conscienceless and brutal slaughter of the males in the land of Hamor and Shechem, God intended for good in building his people. This would not be the only time that God would use the actions that expressed human depravity as a means of extending his purpose (Genesis 50:15–21; John 19: 11; Acts 2:22–24; Ephesian 1:11; Romans 8:26–32).

IV. Under the cloud of imminent danger, God protected Jacob and all who were with him.

A. Instead of Jacob having to travel in fear of the communities that could have acted with vengeance for the slaughter of Shechem, those communities had a great spirit of fear descend on them from God himself so that they would not harm these people.

Jacob did not walk in fear now, but in confidence while those of the world had every reason to fear the holy God of Jacob (cf 2 Timothy 1:7).

B. Jacob came to the place where he originally had encountered God and where God had directed him to go and live. He “and all the people who were with him” came to Bethel, the “House of God.”

C. As instructed, and as Jacob told the people, he constructed an altar.

This he had done in the first divine visitation at Bethel, but now it seems to be a more purposefully formed structure. The altar is mentioned in God’s instructions in verse one, in the statement of Jacob’s intentions in verse 3, and now in Jacob’s actions in verse 7. Worship and consciousness of divine presence is one of the strong themes recurrent in this entire narrative.

D. He called the place “El-Bethel” (7), “the God of the house of God.”

Jacob’s dependence on revelation, and thus on sovereign grace, as the only effectual means of saving knowledge of God comes through in this name and this consciousness of Jacob. The elimination of the idols is a parallel action with the building of the altar at El-Bethel. The altar is built in response to a revelation. When the idols were handed over and buried, they could neither reveal themselves, save themselves, nor do good or ill to others. God is known only as he reveals himself, and he does it when he sees fit, as he sees fit, and in accord with his purpose to save or destroy. After several more centuries of revelation of the saving purpose of God, Isaiah wrote, “They have no knowledge who carry the wood of their carved image, and pray to a god that cannot save. . . . And there is no other God besides me, a just God and a Savior; there is no God besides me. Look to me and be saved all you ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:2, 22).

E. Deborah died. Deborah probably had been deeply involved in care for Jacob in his younger days since she was his mother’s special aid.

Probably she came to be part of the household of Jacob in an earlier visit he made to see his father. This was the last contact that Jacob had with the tenderness of his mother (25:28). Complex would have been the emotions of this time, for the love of his mother for him set in motion all the events of his pilgrimage. It had begun in deceit but was now transformed into a vehicle of redeeming love and revelation. The place of Deborah’s burial was called “Oak of Weeping” (8).

V. God appeared again with more explicit covenant promises.

The chronology is ambiguous for this encounter is given in terms of Jacob’s return from Paddan-Aram. It probably was some time after the death of Deborah because of the language, “Then God appeared to Jacob again.”

A. “He blessed him.” All blessings flow from God to both the just and the unjust, the elect and the non-elect.

We have nothing that we did not receive (1 Corinthians 4:7). The blessings of common grace come to all people all over the earth in ways and proportions determined by God. The blessings of special grace are appointed to those given to Christ in the eternal covenant of redemption. Jacob did not initiate God’s blessings either in number, kind, or time. They always come according to God’s determination and in the “fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4).

B. He reminded him of the past and the promised future by pointing to his names.

Jacob, the supplanter, had been his name from birth and he had conducted himself as such. God had already indicated that Israel would be his name (Genesis 32:28) in the wrestling match at Peniel. In this name he is seen as a “prince with God,” or perhaps as “upright with God.” Those who are justified will reign with their Redeemer (Revelation 20:4–6). Jacob is justified and reigns with God through no merit of his own but only by a sovereign manifestation of saving favor.

C. His authority to change Jacob’s name, and thus his status, is indicated in the title God reveals, “El-Shaddai,” God all powerful or Almighty.

There is no other God, a reality finalized in Jacob’s experience of burying all the foreign gods that lingered in his household. This God can call whom he will and abandon whom he will; he can reveal what he will and hide what he will; command positively what he will and forbid what he will. All that he wills accords with who he is. He never commands or decrees anything contradictory to or inconsistent with his nature and his consequent purpose.

D. The reminder of divine authority precedes significant commands in Scripture: The Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 are preceded by “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (2).

The Great Commission in Matthew 28 is preceded by, “All authority in heaven and earth is given to me” (18). The commission of Acts 1 is preceded by, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (7).

    1. Here the command is “Be fruitful and multiply.” He would have one more son, Benjamin, from whom the first king of Israel, Saul, would come (1 Samuel 9:1). Also, the apostle Paul, originally named Saul, was of the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5). That Benjamin was the full-brother of Joseph was a major factor in securing the family and all their possessions a place in Egypt where fruitfulness and multiplication would be maximized (Exodus 1:7).
    2. Israel would give rise to a nation that would be essentially twelve nations.
    3. Kings would arise also to rule: Saul of Benjamin, David, Solomon, and Rehoboam and those following him of Judah. The other tribes also would give rise to kings such as Jeroboam of Ephraim (1 Kings 11:26; 12:25) One major nation, comprised of twelve coherent quasi-nations, would divide into two major nations. Eventually the King of Kings and Lord of Lords would descend from Jacob through the tribe of Judah.
    4. The land promised to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, and his father, Isaac, would be given to Jacob’s descendants. From this land kings and priests and prophets would operate as types of the coming Messiah. Also, the land would be a precursor to the new heavens and the new earth (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1) and the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2, 10).

E. God went up from him. God had finished the revelation for the time.

    1. He not only is a God who reveals but he is a God who hides (Isaiah 45:15) until he determines to act, reveal, and redeem. Jacob commemorated this revelation by constructing a pillar, probably near the altar, for he poured out an offering on it and anointed it with oil. Again, this indicates Jacob’s confidence in the coming of a Redeemer who would be pure and would be anointed by God to accomplish his purpose among his people.
    2. The quality of Jacob’s faith is the same as that of the apostles Paul and Peter (and ours); indeed, the object of faith is the same (2 Peter 1:1; Galatians 3:7–9). The measure of revelation, however, is immensely different. Consequently, the level of confident assurance and satisfying knowledge of the Messiah and his saving work is proportionately increased by augmented detail in God’s disclosure and the ultimate appearance of the consummate anointed One (Hebrews 1:1–4; Romans 16:25–27; 2 Peter 1:19).
    3. The appearances to Jacob were most likely communications from the Son of God, the second person of the triune God. When the Son of God came in the flesh, he did not go up from us until he had accomplished the promised redemption. Then he ascended to be seated at the right hand of his Father, to send the Spirit to complete the revelation of the meaning of all his work, and to create the new people of God, the true Israel, the true sons of Abraham (Romans 2:29; 11:25, 26; Galatians 6:16).
    4. Revelation for the present age is complete. The next great epoch of revelation and redemptive action by God will be the return of Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:16–18). Presently we await the resurrection when spirit and body will be united in a state of incorruptibility (1 Corinthians 15:51–58), revelation will then be ongoing and inexhaustible, and worship will be pure and increasingly resonant with the unfolding of the infinite excellencies of the triune God.


The vengeful act of Jacob’s brood
Brought pagans into Jacob’s home.
To Bethel where the Lord’s house stood
The Lord said Jacob was to come.

“Dismiss your pagan idols now;
They are not gods, deserve no fear,
Deserve the dirt and not your bow,
Nor pagan trinkets for your ears.”

God’s protection crowned their travel,
Terror hovered o’er their foes.
Jacob took the group to Bethel;
Worship there, assuage your woes.

Worship now the God who claimed you.
Treasure there the grace that saves.
Relish Him who has renamed you,
Conquers death and scoffs the grave.

We who were deceitful schemers
Wanderers on a lonely path
Have been claimed by our Redeemer
Cleansed from trespass, saved from wrath.

God Almighty, unrelenting
Promised Jacob kings and nations,
One to rule o’er those repenting;
He the same that brings salvation.

Sanctify the God of glory,
Give honor where He names His name.
Anoint the Rock, tell His story;
We praise Him who removes our blame.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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